Scientists have dreamed of creating energy out of thin air for over a century. Nikola Tesla was already conducting experiments in this direction in the 1930s. But lately the call for an immaculate energy conception has become louder. Switching from fossil fuels in time to avoid the worst of the climate crisis will be the largest cooperative effort the world has ever attempted, and the necessity has driven scientists to dream big. Some of the resulting brainstorming and experimentation noises ring out of the pages of a sci-fi dimestore novel, or seem like wishful thinking rather than methodology. But scientists are getting closer to making the impossible possible: extracting energy from the air.
In 2021, researchers at the American University of Massachusetts Amherst announced that they had invented a device called the Air-gen, short for air-powered generator. The device can use a naturally occurring protein to convert humidity in the surrounding air to generate electricity. This is done by means of a film consisting of protein nanowires originating from the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens. The team of researchers claimed that this technology “could have interesting implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and the future of medicine.” The film, which is only a few microns thick, has proven to be effective. “We are literally making electricity out of nothing. The Air gene generates clean energy 24/7. It is the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires to date,” said researcher and author Jun Yao.
A year later, in 2022, the European Union started funding a new project called CATCHER, which also aims to generate energy from humidity, but in this case using cells made of zirconium oxide, a ceramic material that in all kinds of applications from dental implants to fuel rods. “When researchers examined the properties of nanomaterials made from zirconium oxide seven years ago, researchers began to see evidence of hygroelectricity,” the European Commission’s magazine Horizon reported in December. They have come a long way in the past seven years, but the technology is still a long way from scalability and practical application. Currently, “an 8-by-5-centimeter sheet of their material can generate about 0.9 volts in a lab with about 50% humidity,” or about the output of half of an AA battery.
Now, this year alone, scientists at Australia’s Monash University have made another breakthrough in the air-to-energy field. This time the main material is an enzyme called Huc. The enzyme is found in the bacteria Mycobacterium smegmatis, a cousin of the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis and leprosy. Huc is already a powerhouse of air-to-energy conversion, used by the bacteria to create energy in extreme environments with few other energy sources.
Once extracted, the researchers say the enzyme could be used to power “a range of small portable electrical devices” […] including biometric sensors, environmental monitors, digital clocks and calculators or simple computers.” So far, the various uses for Huc are more of a thought experiment than a tested hypothesis, but the scientists responsible believe that Huc has the potential for greatness.” if you give Huc more concentrated hydrogen, it produces more electrical current,” said lead author Rhys Grinter. “Which means you could use it in fuel cells to power more complex devices like smartwatches or smartphones, more portable complex computers and possibly even a car.”
Projects aimed at creating energy from air are clearly still in their infancy, but it would be difficult to overstate the potential consequences if any of these technologies became scalable. Creating energy from scratch would solve countless problems related to climate change and other negative environmental externalities associated with energy production. In addition, a technology such as a bacterial enzyme would theoretically be accessible anywhere in the world, making the geopolitics of energy production more equitable and decentralized in distribution. In short, it could turn the global economy as we know it upside down. One day.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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